Support the Guardian

Available for everyone, funded by readers

Changing the narrative

Changing the narrative
Sam and Jo Spencer-Bower regularly open their farm gate to visitors to help improve the public's perception of farming.

Sam Spencer-Bowers's family have farmed Claxby at Eyrewell since Sam's great-grandfather Marmaduke Dixon arrived from Lincolnshire in 1852.

Dixon's descendants farmed sheep and beef on the property for the next four generations until Sam came home to the farm with his wife, Jo.

With the same pioneering spirit of his great-grandfather, Sam bravely changed the farming system to dairy in 2012 to ensure the operation remained viable.

"It was very scary because my family were pretty staunch sheep and beef farmers.

"But the economics just meant it was the right thing to do."

Sam and Jo had spent a small amount of time on dairy farms and attended Lincoln University, where Jo says they learned "the bare minimum" about dairy farming, so there was much to learn.

Being the fifth generation on the farm also came with a certain amount of pressure.

"Dairy wasn't our background," Sam said.

"And you feel like you are being judged; with a long family farming history, people think you should know what you are doing.

"We definitely felt the pressure and wanted to get things right."

The conversion of the 1400-hectare property was staggered, with the first unit converted in 2012, and by 2016, three dairy units were operational, with around 1000 cows each and a dairy support farm down the road.

The conversions coincided with the arrival of the Spencer–Bowers' two daughters, Chloe and Ruby.

"I was literally in labour trying to organise houses for the new conversion," Jo said.

"We don't always make things easy for ourselves."

Sam said a lot of lessons were learned the hard way and that dairying continues to become more complex.

"It continues to become more complicated mainly around environmental stuff, but also animal welfare.

"With public perception, it continues to get more difficult, but that's why we wanted to enter the Ballance Farm Awards and open up our farm to visits. We want to add a bit of truth in there."

The Spencer-Bowers participated in Open Farms last year and have regular farm visits from the agri-science class from St Andrews College.

Te Koromiko Swannanoa School, of which Ruby attends and is third generation, is much more urban than in Sam's day and the Spencer-Bowers regularly have visits from the school pupils.

Often, as many parents turn up for farm visits as children.

The Spencer-Bowers provide calves, milk and meal for the schools' Seeds of Learning agriculture program.

"If we can do our bit for our local patch, that's a good start," Sam said

"If every farm did that for their local school, you'd cover the whole country."

Claxby Farms has also welcomed visitors for Fonterra Farm open gate days, and recently, delegates from across the globe visited as part of the Asian Seed Congress.

Delegates from around the globe visit Claxby Farms as part of the Asian Seed Congress

"We want people to come in and understand it rather than just read about it.

"The public are very good with opinions when they haven't even been on the farm, so we are trying to provide that opportunity where we can.”

Sam says Claxby Farms are far from perfect, and he understands some people may not agree with their approach.

'We do the best that we can, and we always strive to do better.

"As new technologies come, we always look at how we can implement them into the business."

Variable rate irrigation is one thing on Sam's wish list, but he says he can't quite get the business case across the line for it yet.

"There's plenty of technology we would like to implement, but it has to stack up financially."

Fourteen years after the first conversion, Sam says they are in "a pretty good spot" with the farm system.

"We just focus on efficiency and doing things well.

"There's still plenty of things to keep doing on the farm, but I think that pretty much goes on forever."

by Claire Inkson